His eyes never left mine. Rimmed with tears that had already been shed a thousand times, they yearned to share his story, for me to listen, to hear, to feel. “Pay close attention” they pleaded as deeply as his accented words. “You will not be sorry you did.” I could feel the current of emotion in him, rising like a tide. “It started in Poland. I was born in 1937. My brother in 1933. I was two years old when they took my father away.”
We had just been introduced, barely having said hello. I was a first time guest at his son’s home with my family for a holiday dinner for Sukkot. Seven children and eight adults warmed the house like a nice glass of Merlot . The children were jumping and screaming. One was playing the drums. A massive pillow fight was in the works as the adults chatted merrily without care. Over the noise, our friend Tim introduced us. “This is my father Ben. He has an amazing story to share.” “Dad, this is my friend. She is a writer.”
His focus changed from light to locked. “You are writer?”
I demurred. “Not really. I have always written stories, essays and such, but no, not really.”
But both Tim and my husband would not allow my honest assessment of inexperience and pumped up my resume and his confidence in my story telling abilities.
“Come.” His intensity guided me from the others as if his hand were on my shoulder leading the way. I could only follow. He was a small man but he carried a heavy story. It walked with us like a third person.
He motioned toward the dining room table and we sat down. I was happy for my glass of wine. It gave me a moment or two of distraction away from his intense need. There was no small talk or preamble.
“Do you know much of Poland in the late 1930’s?”
I really did not. My knowledge of my own history is embarrassingly inadequate. He explained how Poland was divided by Hitler and Stalin and split between Russia and Germany. His family lived on the Russian side. They had some means, he explained, his father was an educated man, an ecologist of some sort. As communist Russia overtook Poland, they “nationalized” the middle and upper class families living there, taking their homes, lands and wealth and sending them off to Siberia.
“They sent your family to Siberia?” I asked stunned and amazed. Siberia was, well, Siberia.
“Yes, my father first and then they came for my mother, my brother and me.”
“So at least you were together.” I felt some small comfort that at least there was that.
“No. My mother, brother and I were sent away to another part where we lived in spaces dug in the ground with around 2,000 others. My mother was put to work as a lumberjack while my brother and I were left there alone with nothing.”
“But you were only seven and two?”
I took a big gulp of wine. How do you even look at someone who has been through so much pain? By asking a safe, clinical question. “They did this to all the Jewish people of Poland?”
“No, they did it to every one of means.”
I nodded. I had a hundred questions. I could never imagine living in my bubbled suburban world that my family could be ripped from their home and then ripped from their loved ones. I felt a tear in my heart. I wanted him to go on. I needed to know about how they survived each day, but I also wanted to know about the home they left. What it looked like, and tasted like. The smells and sights, what their lives were really like in Poland in 1939 before the world turned on its head and then closed its eyes.
We were interrupted by Tamara, my friend, Tim’s wife, who walked in I’m sure to save me. We had, after-all, just arrived for a holiday dinner. She gently put her arm around her father-law. “Come. You can’t tell her the whole story tonight.” She kindly teased him. You could see the love and high regard she held him in. Ben smiled and politely acquiesced to social graces. “Of course.”
We both stood to join the party, but Ben still looked to hold my eye and my attention. “I hope for us to meet again so I can tell you more. That is barely a beginning.”
“Me too.” I meant it. I was sucked in to his story – to him, to his history and his almost desperate, palpable need to divulge and honor that history. But I knew, ultimately, that he wanted someone to put his past on paper, to make it live and breathe again. Just because I was intrigued by him – by his eyes and his hands, by his words and intensity, that didn’t mean I could write it for him. That didn’t mean that I could make the bored and desensitized world of today stop for a moment and remember.
Wow, I want to know more too! I hope you have the rest of the story for a later post. It’s amazing to me what some had to endure. I’ve had such a cushy life compared to that.
so true. we can’t even understand. thanks.
I want to know more as well. When I was a child, my grandparents and great grandparents always tried to tell me stories. I was a kid. I didn’t care. I surely didn’t care about the stories from my great great grandmother, a Jew. Now I wish I knew those stories. What I wouldn’t give to have them written on paper, to be able to pass them along to my children when they might care someday.
i wish i would have done it with my own grandma. she had so many stories and so much history. it’s sad, when they’re gone.. it’s all gone, unless you get it down. and of course when they want to tell it, we’re too young, too busy to really listen and appreciate. i know… thx.
Hunt that man down and make some more time to talk! I want to hear more!
he wants me to write more. i”m a little afraid…
Pleeeeease do it!
Great job! The quality of this post shows that — yes, you are a writer. Trust those compliments given by your friends and family in this story.
thank you. i believe… i don’t believe… i believe… i don’t believe… 😉
Yes, you are a writer, because I say so. I am the Chairman of who gets to say she is a writer. You get to say it. And this story is so important. I want more of him and his story. I didn’t realize that Poland was chopped up by Stalin and Hilter. I just thought it was all Hitler. Separating families like that….chilling. Your description of this important story in the middle of a party was so good.
thank you. i accept that, since it comes from the chairman. apparently i’m a cliched insecure, attention seeking…. writer? Yay – i’m a writer!!! yay.
i won’t believe it tomorrow.. 😉
I concur!! I am the foreign correspondent of said chairman, and I say yes too!
I loved: “Seven children and eight adults warmed the house like a nice glass of Merlot ” great little simile 🙂 Also, if you *are* interested in learning more about Poland in the latter half of that century…Freedom Climbers!!! Read it! It may be uplifting after what I am sure is to come…
thank you, foreign correspondent!!! and i’ll check out the book. i’ve definitely heard of it. 🙂
Yes you can!
I hope you write this story.. Because the world can be cold and desensitized is exactly why you should do it.
thank you! i’m just a little afraid to write such a big story. but you’re right. 🙂
In a week of awesome Yeah Write posts, yours stands out and salutes! Your interpretation of this tragic, important story is poignant; the writing pure and brilliant. I’m moved, intrigued and frankly, jealous of your talent. Great work.
i want to know where i can star comments so i can keep them forever. thank you for kind words. they make me feel like a walk down the ice cream aisle. come with. 🙂
You got it! I’m in!
Love, love, love, love this post. So good. Sounds like the first chapter of a book…
I is not joking.
thank thank thank you!!! 🙂
Yes! Yes! And yes! More, please. This is a fascinating story that deserves to be told by a truly gifted writer (you!).
P.S. I LOVED this part:
“He was a small man but he carried a heavy story. It walked with us like a third person.” You are so damned good!
Thank you!!!! I so appreciate!!!
my fave part as well…you MUST write it, it’s your duty and responsibility as a writer! 🙂 of COURSE you’re a writer, silly, look at all your readers!! now, breathe…
thank you!!! i want to but i don’t. it’s a big job with a sensitive man and a sensitive issue. Maybe… but i’m not ready yet.
How I understand *sigh*, it makes me very anxious to write my story/sensitive issue. I want to write it, I believe I should write it, that it could be beneficial to someone ‘out there’, and that I’ll feel better for doing it. I sometimes allow my fears, and pressure (from myself and others) get in my way. Then, the longer I go without writing it, the higher my anxiety level climbs. Vicious circle, but at least you’re saying maybe and that’s enough for today. Just keep writing! 🙂
don’t be anxious about writing… that doesn’t sound helpful. it’s not supposed to be giving you more stress – no one says you have to write it. be kind to you.
cyber hug. 🙂
Thank you for your encouraging words…looky what I got in my email right after I read your words… thought you might enjoy (and other writers as well!)
grrr, forgot to copy and paste…hear it is http://nhwn.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/fear-of-flying-writer-style/ 🙂
grrr x2 ‘here’ not ‘hear’ sheesh!
thanks – motivating!!
I’m HOOKED! Please tell me there’s more!
DO IT!!!! Help him get his story on paper. The first point of reference for me was the year of his birth (same as my parents). I’m so like you. I have to know this stuff. It interests and fascinates me but it also provides me with an empathetic outlet and I want to help. “It walked with us like a third person” was stunning! Do IT!!!
I hope that when you hear more of his story, you will share it here. It is so important to bear witness to these kinds of stories. With each passing year, the number of people who survived that time in history grow fewer and fewer, and it is certainly our responsibility to make sure that the stories endure. It is striking to me that you heard this story on Succot, which is a holiday of great joy and remembrance of another turbulent time in Jewish history, and a time when we gather to give thanks that we are here, and for all that we have been given. An interesting parallel.
i know – it’s funny, lately i’ve been writing/encountering more jewish/religious things than typical. the universe is talking to me… 😉
Sometimes being the right person doesn’t mean being the one with perfect qualifications. It means being the one who was there. He trusts you, and that should be enough. Do it.
His is a story that should be told and told well. It would be a gift to him for you to tell his story. As, it would be a gift for you and others, as well. I hope you get the opportunity!
Yes! Tell the story!! But I totally get the pressure and the weight of the responsibility and the fear that you won’t do it justice or somehow aren’t the right person. When I worked in a refugee camp I heard the most horrid tales and felt I could never do the experiences justice. But I wrote anyway and those stories live beyond the people a bit more because of it. And it’s clear through your telling that you are the right person to tell this story. I’m on the edge of my seat to hear more…
Just go with a digital recorder and let him talk. That will be the best gift you can give his family and if you end up writing more, even better.
What an amazing opportunity! I do hope you’ll take it!
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Please write his story.. I would love to read it.
Talk to him and write his story!!! i want to read it. it should be read and understood by as many people as possible. Do it!!!